After the Party ... Comes the Festival!

by Tomas Ivan Träskman

"They did not want a piece of the cake, they wanted the whole damn bakery", say Alexei Shulgin and Olga Goriunova when they look back on the activist years in the early nineties.

Things really did not go the way it was planned, but then, they seldom do.

Though criticism and activism has proven unable to beat big software, telecom and media players: the core values of the internet: belief in decentrality, the right to own your own words, the idea of sharing resources, code and content, and anonymity still remain essential and worth defending according to Alexei and Olga. Alternative or independent initiatives have grown away from previous oppositional or subcultural contexts into a vibrant, global new media culture, intervening with the technology itself. Internet is not just a tool. Tactical media, such as community networks, mailinglists, independent media centers, art servers, temporary media labs are not to be marginalized to the fringes of a business-dominated Internet.

Read_me 2.3 software art festival looks into the ambivalent role cyberculture is playing in the mobilization of creative potentials on the side of both producers (artists, designers, programmers, hackers and activists) and users, tamed into the role of consumers. Crucial here are the different stages of new media culture, from its mythical, speculative stage, complete with its New Age visionaries, leading to a period of hype dominated by the neo-Darwinist business New Economy agenda, culminating into a stage of numbed 'massification,' a climate dominated by online surveillance, zero privacy, viruses and filters, information overload and a diffuse paranoia about the online Other.

Read_me 2.3 software art festival starts when the party is over, in the post-dotcom recession era. Ignoring the libertarian culture of blame, which accuses both the government and 'the market' for the tech wreck, it sets out on a critical examination of actual software and internet culture. After a good laugh about the absurd dotgone business plans it is better to prepare for tough battles to come. There is little time for post-bubble cynicism. Internet wars are on the rise. Fights over intellectual property, domain names, repressive legislation, corporate monopolies and censorship are just about to begin.

There is still enough room to explore the undiscovered potentials of, for example, peer to peer networks, free software, alternative browsers and user interfaces. However, if these concepts and prototypes want to be successful it is necessary for the 'geek' engineer culture to make a 'cultural leap.' Art and design in the new media context are not merely decoration created in order to compensate the boredom of the everyday. What is needed in today's technological culture is an open and equal dialogue between citizens, designers, programmers, business and governments to overcome the 'cultural divide' and shape the network society in a new way. The information infrastructure is too important to be left to technologists or e-commerce consultants.

Net criticism should not so much be defined as yet another emerging discipline with literary criticism and cultural studies as its predecessors, but rather it is described as a collaborative form to create networked discourses in which theory and practice, code and content, reflection and production, interface design and network architecture are closely intertwined.